If attendees at the Association of American University Presses annual meeting in Austin, Tex., last week turned on the televisions in their hotel rooms, they likely saw one of numerous ads from Amazon soliciting applicants to work at a fulfillment center opening in nearby San Marcos, Tex. Even the world of university press publishing can’t escape Amazon’s influence. “It’s not always advisable to admit it, but when I ask our members what their biggest sale channel is, most will tell you, reluctantly, it’s Amazon,” said Peter Berkery, executive director of AAUP.
The AAUP meeting, which drew 675 people to the J.W. Marriott hotel, opened on Sunday, June 11, with a rousing speech by newsman Dan Rather emphasizing that university presses focused on research were a bulwark of truth in an era of fake news. “We all must be—and you are—vigilant in renewing our compact with books and deep thoughts,” Rather said. The emphasis university presses put on research is being used has an unofficial motto for the organization, which is employing the hashtag #LookitUP to promote its activities, including during University Press Week, which runs November 6–11.
The sentiment also inspired many in attendance, who expressed a renewed sense of mission and purpose, and provided a framework for the numerous panel discussions held over the next two days.
The focus of the opening plenary session was diversity and the challenges of bringing more writers and editors of color into the industry, which has been an ongoing theme this publishing year. “You can sit on the sideline and hope the world gets better, or you can get in the fray and make it better,” said Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Other panels covered topics ranging from accounting to open access to monograph publishing. “Some studies say as many as 83% of academic monographs are being published,” Berkery said. “To some in academia, that’s evidence of the university press system working. The others hear that 17% are not being published, and to them it is evidence of the university press system being broken.”
Perhaps most relevant to the broader publishing community was a panel on how academic publishers can work more closely with independent booksellers. “The sticking point has always been terms and conditions,” explained Jeff Deutsch, director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago, referring to booksellers’ reluctance to purchase books on short discounts. Deutsch noted that publishers “need to be more flexible on credit limits and holds,” adding: “I sometimes need to order books for an event, knowing I’ll sell them, but then hit the already-modest credit limit and can’t get what I need. It’s like I’m being punished for successfully selling your books.”
The American Booksellers Association put a pilot program in place last year to incorporate university press books into its Indies First program on Small Business Saturday, held two days after Thanksgiving each year. “But it is in its very early stages,” said Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, senior program officer for the ABA, from the audience.
Attendees were focused not only on scheduled events but on networking and informal connections with representatives of other member presses. Berkery noted that the AAUP’s membership continues to grow, and it added three new members last year: Wits University Press from South Africa, the University of Otago Press from New Zealand, and the University of Cincinnati Press. That two of the three are from overseas is reflects the fact that most university presses in the U.S. and Canada are already members; of eligible presses, only Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Tex., which is in the midst of the application process, and Fairleigh Dickinson University Press are not yet members.
“Our membership stands at 143 members, and 10% of that is international,” Berkery said. “That is where our growth will come from, particularly as universities outside the U.S. recognize the importance and utility of scholarly publishing.” The AAUP will lose one member, Duquesne University Press in Pittsburgh, when it shuts down later this year, making it the first AAUP member press to close since Howard University Press did so in 2010.
Berkery pointed out that one of the benefits of having an international membership was the networking and, in particular, the opportunity to buy and sell rights during events like the annual meeting. “University presses like to buy rights from other university presses, and the AAUP imprimatur gives each credibility.”
Among those in attendance was Kathy Kirk, publisher of Getty Publications in Los Angeles, who said she nearly always attends the annual meeting to stay on top of the relevant issues and connect with the broader community. The sentiment was echoed by Nate Bauer, director and acquisitions editor of University of Alaska Press: “We can feel pretty isolated up there, so this annual meeting is a very important part of our calendar.”
The mood was, overall, positive, despite, as Berkery noted, the false perception that university presses are in crisis. “This couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “There has been a lot of experimentation and innovation in the field, keeping things going.”
Though many attendees noted that scholarly publishers still face many challenges, not the least of which are funding cuts (the University of Illinois Press has operated without a budget for three years), the community remains resilient. As Rather said, UPs “offer the antidote to alternative facts and the assault on reason, and we do it authoritatively and elegantly.”